OCTOBER
1995

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

10-12-95

To Fabre, Insects Were Poetic

Jean Henri Fabre was a French naturalist. He devoted his life to the study of the natural history of insects. Fabre was a pioneer. Like famous explorers such as Columbus, he went where no man had gone before.

In the 19th century, long before Frank Sinatra put it to song, Fabre did it "My Way!" He took his study of insects into the field where they lived. At the time, insect study was largely confined to dusty, smelly museums where scientists studied row upon row of pinned specimens. He, like all naturalists, was much more interested in how the insects lived than how they looked. Fabre also pioneered in another area we now take for granted — that women, as well as men, should have the opportunity to study science. Because he included women in his science classes, Fabre was fired from one of his early teaching jobs.

While Fabre's observations of the biology of insects stand today as unparalleled, it is his writing that has endeared him to millions. The sheer volume of his writing is staggering — 10 volumes containing more that 2,500 pages and nearly 850,000 words. His great work on the lives of insects was published in 10 volumes spread over 30 years. His magnum opus was entitled "Souvenirs Entomologiques."

As Edwin Way Teale wrote in the foreword to the 1949 edition of the book "The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre: "In the field of insect-study, the works of J. Henri Fabre are classics; in the field of literature they hold a special place of their own." Fabre wrote in simple but poetic language. His enthusiasm for the study of insects is clear, even in the words that are translated from the French. Gerald Durrell writes concerning Fabre: "Through his entrancing prose I became the hunting wasp, the paralyzed spider, the cicada, the burnished scarab beetle, and a host of other creatures as well."

One of the most famous of Fabre's stories describes the pine processionary caterpillars, pests of evergreen trees that march head to tail in a procession. Fabre writes in description of their destructiveness: "You voracious little creatures, if I let you have your way, I should soon be robbed of the murmur of my once so leafy pines!" Relative to their behavior we read: "They proceed in single file, in a continuous row, each touching with its head the rear of the one in front of it. The complex twists and turns described in his vagaries by the caterpillar leading the van are scrupulously described by all the others. No Greek theoria winding its way to the Eleusinian festivals was ever more orderly. Hence the name of Processionary given to the gnawer of the pine."

It is such writing that provided the title for Fabre's biography, written by C.V. Legros, entitled "Fabre, Poet of Science." Indeed, it is through his writing that millions of readers have become better acquainted with the insect world, which Durrell calls "that vast world that lies under our shoes and which we seldom notice." Fabre noticed and devoted his life to learning about the habits of insects, the enthusiasm for which he maintained until his death at 88 years of age. He stated: "I should be no less ardent a worker were not the weakness of my eyes and the failure of my strength today an insurmountable obstacle." Fabre's wonder outlived his sight, his enthusiasm, and his strength. We all should be so lucky!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann